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Interview/Photos: Scottish Band Biffy Clyro Returns to the US With the Release of 'Only Revolutions'
It's no surprise that Biffy Clyro's fifth studio album, Only Revolutions, made many of the UK's "Best of 2009" lists. The Scotland-based trio has crafted an engrossing record that thoroughly rocks while remaining melodically intriguing. Today marks the release of Only Revolutions in the US, and it's sure to become a top pick here as well.
Last Friday, LAist sat down with lead singer/guitarist Simon Neil and twins Ben Johnston (drums/vocals) and James Johnston (bass/vocals) on the set of their new music video. We learned about today's release of Only Revolutions, its relationship to Mark Z. Danielewski's perpetually brilliant novel of the same name, what they love about LA, and their gigs this week at the Troubadour.
LAist: You're known for your masterful manipulation of time signatures. What's your favorite moment on the album—one where you change things up?
James Johnston: I'd say the riff in "That Golden Rule," which initially managed to baffle 16 of the best string players LA has to offer. It doesn't feel that strange to us now because we've played it for a long time, but it was really funny to watch a whole room of people melt down when they tried to work that one out.
Simon Neil: Yeah, that half-time riff is also my favorite, because the drums are so on it, and it just makes people want to bounce. We've often used weird rhythms to get people nodding along. But we also try to make something that can roll back around rather than just confusing people for the sake of it. It should still be musical and cohesive.
Given that you're in the middle of recording a music video for the song "Bubbles," what is one of your favorite aspects of this track?
Ben Johnston: I love that, by the time you get to the end of the song, you've kind of forgotten how it started. I enjoy music that takes you on a journey like that. This one starts and sits in a groove, then by the end it's a big space jam. On the album, Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age plays the guitar solo on this track.
"The Captain" is a great way to start the record and that song seems to have evolved over time. How did it begin?
Simon: Quite often the first incarnation of a song leads you down a path—so you have your favorite moments in the song, but there are some parts that don't quite work. In the first couple years of being a band, you just kind of accept those ideas the way they are, but now we try to keep only the best stuff—the parts that give us goose pimples.
Just for the fun of it, we released the original version of this song as the b-side to "The Captain." They're both valid versions, but at this point they're almost completely different songs.
Biffy Clyro - "The Captain"
You've always had amazing orchestration in your music, but this time you brought in Oscar-winning arranger/composer (and Beck's father) David Campbell. What did he bring to the table that you didn't have before?
Simon: We worked on our last record, Puzzle, with composer Graeme Revell. He does a lot with movies, so it ended up sounding a lot more cinematic—which actually suited the songs on the last album.
For this album, David Campbell came in at a very early stage. As soon as he realized he was going to work with us, he checked out all our previous records. He tried to understand our perspective and really got the fact that we're not trying to be just another rock band. We don't just want strings on the big ballads. We also want things like horns, clarinets and harpsichords—elements that many people think you shouldn't have on rock records.
What's one of your favorite moments that David created for the album?
Ben: My favorite moment is probably on "Know Your Quarry" where he came up with these amazing pizzicato parts that made it a whole new song. The guy's just absolutely incredible. The things we asked him to do, he completely nailed, and when it came to the things we gave him free rein with, he surpassed all our expectations. He really inserted himself into the band.
James: I don't think we've ever met anyone so musical. He's the kind of guy who can pick up any instrument and manage to get a tune out of it.
Which song off the new album is the most fun to play live?
James: I'm going to say "The Captain." It's different every night and it's the kind of song that really gets a crowd going. Simon and I tune our guitars down so it has this really fat riff in it.
Simon: My favorite changes from month to month. We've just started playing "Whorses," the last song on our record, so that feels like the most fun one at the moment. And "That Golden Rule" is always fun because we open with it.
Ben: I'd also say "Whorses," because it's challenging as hell to play. It keeps you on your toes and you really have to concentrate. It's important to have that in gigs, because if it's too easy you might just zone out.
[James and Ben get called to the stage and the interview continues with Simon]
Is it just me or does the theme of horses seem to come up often in your music?
Simon: Yeah, I don't know where the theme came from. It just started popping into my brain, and before I knew it I'd written lots of references to horses. I don't know if it's a metaphor for the band or for me...or if it's just about a sense of freedom.
When I'm writing lyrics, I just try to let things flow. So I probably learn more about it after the record comes out. I feel that art shouldn't be over-thought. It should just be honest and from your gut, and then if it creates its own picture for you at a later date, then great. Whenever I sit down and try to write something, it doesn't work—it doesn't sound sincere or honest.
It's amazing how versatile your voice is throughout the album and in your live shows. What's the best way to approach a feral scream so you don't completely wreck yourself?
Simon: To be honest, years of not warming up have probably made my throat like leather. (laughs) Knock on wood, but thus far we've never had to cancel a show because I've lost my voice. You just battle through it. It's just like any muscle in your body. The more you use it, the better it works. Now I've got a great warm-up routine, which helps a lot.
In recent years, the band has opened for The Rolling Stones, The Who, Muse and Red Hot Chili Peppers
You've said that the title of the album was influenced by the book Only Revolutions by Mark Z. Danielewski [LAist Interview]. When did you get the idea to incorporate some elements of the book into the record?
Simon: Well, around the time we'd finished writing the songs, I went on holiday with my wife and was finally able to finish the book. I realized that Only Revolutions is essentially a love story, and I really enjoyed the fact that you get both people's perspectives on the same events. It's only when you read both parts that you really get the full picture.
The songs on this album are from my point of view as well as my wife's. So as I read the book and we went in to record, I realized that what Danielewski did through the medium of literature, we were trying to do with this album. As soon as it got into my head that it should be called Only Revolutions, I knew it could never be called anything else.
I also love that one of your song titles is "Booooom, Blast & Ruin."
Simon: Yeah, that came from the book, too. I just love the way Danielewski throws the rules out the window. House of Leaves is another amazing book, as is The Fifty Year Sword. That last one took me about six months to find because it's so rare. I think I paid $150 for it, but it was worth every penny!
In the book Only Revolutions, you can start reading from either side of the book. If you listen to the songs on your album in reverse order, does that tell a story as well?
Simon: That would've been fun to do, but we didn't go that far into it when we were sequencing the record. It's hard enough to get it running frontways!
But sequencing is so important. An album should be an album start to finish, and every part of it should be necessary. In our minds it's like writing a story, and if you take out one part, you're left with nothing. We feel that way about our records—every song is as important as the one that precedes it. Or at least that's the hope!
Did the concept behind this album—the two perspectives—change your songwriting process?
Simon: No, musically I've always written the same way. I only write songs at home between midnight and four in the morning. My wife's a teacher, so when she goes to bed, I'll sit and doodle in that half-awake state where your mind wanders and plays all sorts of tricks on you.
Which is your wife's favorite song off the new album?
Simon: To be honest, I try not to ask her questions like that because I think she knows it's so important to me that if she said she had a favorite, I'd ask, "Why don't you like the other ones?"
She's very supportive, and thankfully very understanding, about how I write about our relationship—sometimes quite explicitly and other times more surreptitiously. After five albums I think she's used to it now.
Simon's theremin hijinks
You play a number of instruments, and not just the usual suspects. The YouTube video where you're playing around with the theremin is very entertaining. Does the song "Shock Shock" have theremin in it?
Simon: Yes, it's at the end of "Shock Shock" and in the second verse of "Born on a Horse."
What's one thing you've discovered about the theremin as you've experimented with it over the years?
It's quite a tough instrument to play—nearly impossible. When you see someone who can play it, it looks so easy. But the truth is that if you're one millimeter off, it just sounds awful. The most fun I have with it is making a race car sound.
Speaking of instruments, given the great orchestral elements of this album, is there any chance you'll play some shows with a full orchestra?
Simon: We've done a few shows with the brass and strings. We haven't done a full-on proper production with a whole orchestra, but it's something we'd be interested in doing. I think it can be tough for rock bands, because it can sometimes sound like schlock rock. If it's done well, it's incredible. If it's done badly, it can be awful.
Thankfully, the songs work with the three of us live, and we try to keep it as uncomplicated as possible. But maybe someday we can do that. Nothing beats the sound of classical instruments.
Then you could stage dive at Royal Albert Hall.
Simon: Yeah…and start smashing cellos... (laughs)
Exactly! So have you ever gotten injured during a stage dive with all those people manhandling you?
Simon: Thankfully, no one's actually hurt me, but I've broken a foot jumping off a PA before. I've broken my rib jumping off a stage. I've chipped some teeth. So pretty much anything that's breakable, I've broken!
Now on to happier things: You were the first rock band to play the Houses of Parliament. What were the acoustics like?
Simon: They were fine, but it was a really intimidating gig. Before the show, we'd joked that we were going to steal cutlery and be anarchic about it, but as soon as we arrived it felt like we were back at school.
We got shown around the place and played the gig on this semi-permanent patio thing just outside Big Ben. It was very surreal. It was only afterward that we realized we were the first rock band ever to do it. Definitely a pinch-me experience.
I read that there's a woman who has spent at least £10,000 (approx. $15,000) traveling to all your gigs. Do you know if she plans to attend any of your US shows?
Simon: I don't know if she will. She's a lovely lady and she's traveled to a to a lot of our European gigs. There are actually two friends who have traveled quite a bit—one from the States and one from the UK—Tessa and Yvonne.
It's lovely when people are willing to take time out of their lives and value our music enough to make it that big a part of their life. It's something where, if you think about it too much, you freak yourself out. It's obviously something we take very seriously—for someone to spend their hard-earned money to keep seeing us is amazing.
And I've heard that a number of your fans have gotten Biffy Clyro tattoos as well! Do you have any new ink?
Simon: I have a couple new ones. In January, I got a portrait of my mum and dad. My mum passed away a few years ago and that's what the last record was about, so I've been wanting to get this one for a few years. I went to a portrait specialist. And I recently got one of da Vinci's "Hands" sketches to go with my many other da Vinci tattoos.
Have you ever seen the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit that tours museums around the world?
Simon: No, but I'd love to. It's a worry though, because whenever I see a new sketch, I want to get a new tattoo!
Biffy Clyro's "Only Revolutions"
Getting back to the album a bit, even though it has its dark moments, do you feel it's your most hopeful record to date?Simon: Definitely. The last record was such an intense experience. Every moment of it was almost tortuous because it meant so much and every moment had to be perfect. Around the time we did this one, I got married and life was going on—it just felt like there was a future.
Everyone loses people in their life and you get to a point where you think it's never going to get better, but then you finally get out on the other side. I definitely wanted it to be musically uplifting, and hopefully lyrically as well. There are still some dark points, but I think it's more hopeful and more filled with love than hate.
Years ago you were quoted as saying, "At the start, you just want to sound like your favorite bands, but after a while you realize, maybe you could become your favorite band." Nowadays, bands are starting to be compared to you. How satisfying is that?
Simon: It's really bizarre and we still can't get our heads around that. We still feel like a new band even though we're five albums in. It's really flattering. I love it if someone takes inspiration from us, even if they think we're shit and they've taken inspiration not to be like us. (laughs)
It's an exciting thing and we've genuinely tried to make a different record with every record. We don't want to take the easy route.
Have you started working on your next album?
Simon: We've started. As I mentioned earlier, I only write at home. We had two weeks off over Christmas, and I came up with 5-6 new song ideas and a couple of them feel really great. Hopefully they'll make the next record.
But for every good song you write, there are 4-5 that aren't so good, though they feel amazing every time you come up with a new idea. I think if you don't feel excited about your new songs, then it's time to take a break. You should always feel like your new songs are your best songs.
The whole thing hasn't started to take shape yet, but it's still good to get the ball rolling. Sometimes that first song can be tricky.
Biffy Clyro - "That Golden Rule"
[James and Ben return]
Welcome back! This next question is for you—as twins, what is your onstage communication like? Do you know what the other is thinking most of the time?
Ben: Hopefully our playing together has always been tight. This is the only band we've ever played in, so it's hard—there's no measuring stick. I guess there is some unspoken telepathy that happens on stage. But we also have a great connection with Simon. I think when you spend that much time with people on stage, something intermingles and magic happens.
Simon, it says on Wikipedia that you're a big PEZ dispenser collector, but I couldn't find any other material to back that up. Is that true?
Simon: That's an insane rumor. It's not true. Maybe I should start collecting them just to make it true. I do collect religious memorabilia though—like wee Virgin Marys and Jesus dolls.
Biffy fan art (Ben)
James and Ben, do you collect anything?James: I've got a bunch of miniature Volkswagen camper van stuff. I bought myself one little toy and all my friends got wind of it, so every time they see one they get it for me. So I've got a bunch of VW piggy banks and a toast rack and egg cups. The list goes on.
Ben: I've got a bunch of Star Wars stuff, including a tattoo. I'm a huge fan.
What's one of the coolest gifts you've ever received from a fan?
James: Well, when we were in Japan, people brought us these really amazing prints. They drew pictures of us, then got them printed professionally in an art store.
You recorded Only Revolutions in Los Angeles. What led you to choose LA?
Simon: Well, we recorded the song "Mountains" here about a year before we did the record, because we wanted to have a new song to play at gigs between albums. We found that the pace of life in LA is great and it's nice to see the sun!
We did our previous record in Vancouver. We were up in the mountains and there was no one else around. We lived 20 yards from the studio, so we'd wake up, walk 20 yards, play for 12 hours, then walk back. It was the same thing for eight weeks and we started to lose our minds. Don't get me wrong, Vancouver was gorgeous, but in LA it was nice to be around other people and get some sunshine!
Did you get into any trouble while you were in town those two months?
Simon: Not really, though we did have a good time in Vegas. We hired a Mustang, drove to Vegas and ticked all the dream boxes.
It sounds really boring to say, but when we were in LA, we worked really hard. The album was the most important thing. If we'd gotten wrecked and made a mess of the record, we'd never forgive ourselves.
Plus my wife came out for a month, so she got to soak up some sun and it was nice having her here. We just had a much better headspace for this album. It wasn't as intense as Puzzle.
What are some of your favorite restaurants and places to hang out in LA?
Simon: El Compadre—opposite Guitar Center—was our local Mexican place. We actually went there last night because we missed it so much. Barney's Beanery is classic. We love the vibe and the history in that place.
Ben: I'd say California Chicken Cafe and In-N-Out Burger. And we love visiting the ArcLight to watch films. It's great how a guy actually comes out and talks to you before the movie starts.
James: Amoeba Records is fun. We lost a few days in there just wandering around...
Simon: ...and we probably lost a few grand in there, too!
Do you guys collect vinyl records?
James: I did for a while, but then I realized I didn't have a record player. (laughs) It's something I would love to do, but it's tough when you're on the road. Maybe someday.
Given that Craig Ferguson—who hails from Scotland—tapes the Late Late Show in Los Angeles, have you ever performed on his show?
Simon: Not yet, but hopefully someday. If he's any kind of Scotsman, he'll have us on! (laughs)
You'll be supporting Manchester Orchestra at the Troubadour on Tuesday and Wednesday. Have you toured with them before?
Simon: We both toured together with a band called Say Anything. We're similar people and we have the beards in common! We just really hit it off, so we've stayed in touch, and they invited us to support them here. It's nice when things work out like that and you're playing with your friends—when it happens organically for the right reasons rather than everything just being set up by agents and all that. They're a fantastic band.
As our time comes to a close, is there anything else you'd like to add?
Ben: We'd like to apologize for the fact that we haven't spent as much time in America in the past. We're going to remedy that by being here lots more.
Simon: Yeah, we're happy to finally start playing more shows in LA. We're also going to try to come back in September.
James: And we'd just like to say thanks to everyone who's supported us up to this point. Hopefully can repay them with a couple amazing shows at the Troubadour!
Thanks for speaking with LAist!
Biffy Clyro's latest album, Only Revolutions, made its US debut earlier today on iTunes. The band will play the Troubadour tonight and tomorrow night (March 9 and 10) along with The Features and Manchester Orchestra. It's an early show, and Biffy will take the stage at 7:45 p.m. Learn more at www.biffyclyro.com.